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Theatre in Review The Seagull/Sense and Sensibility (Bedlam Theatre/The Sheen Center)

Andrus Nelson, Vaishnai Sharma, Kate Hamill, Samantha Steinmetz in Sense and Sensibility. Photo: Elizabeth Nichols

Bedlam, the young company that won so much acclaim in 2012 and 2013 for its productions of St. Joan and Hamlet, is back, with a new two-play repertory; catching them for the first time, I can confirm that these talented artists are capable of giving an electric jolt to a text you thought you knew too well. When it comes to the making of new plays, however, they still have some distance to travel.

Sitting in the theatre, listening to a preshow playlist that included "We are Young" by Fun and "Come on Eileen" by Dexys Midnight Runners, I awaited The Seagull with the lowest of expectations. It wasn't just the music: Anya Reiss' adaptation updates the action to today on the Isle of Man, but not entirely felicitously: It's amusing to hear the characters complaining about the poor cell phone coverage on a country estate, or Konstantin recalling one of his mother's engagements at The Public Theater. But when Dorn, the doctor, tries to cover up the sound of gunfire by insisting that the bottles in his medical bag are exploding, one wonders, Does that really still happen? Furthermore, in today's world, would Nina really be disowned by her parents for having an affair with Trigorin? And would she spiral down into poverty and madness on the basis of one bad relationship? This text tries to build a halfway house between two centuries but the pieces don't always fit.

I was further bemused by the casting: For example, Medvedenko, the teacher who marries the unloving Masha, is played by Samantha Steinmetz. Aha, I thought: a lesbian relationship. But no: Steinmetz is simply playing a man. And no attention is paid to anyone's age: Andrus Nichols, as Masha, actually looks older than Kate Hamill, who plays her mother, Polina. And given the relative ages of Eric Tucker, as Konstantin, and Vaishnavi Sharma, as Arkadina, she must have given birth to him at the age of four. Arkadina is terrified of getting old, but all I could think was, Honey, you've got a long way to go.

And yet, only a few minutes in, everyone is performing with such snap and vigor that one's memories of all those droopy, depressive Chehkov revivals are instantly banished. It begins with an uproarious version of Konstantin's avant-garde play, its nonplussed audience reception, accompanied by Arkadina's acid comments, working to throw the young man's anger and shame into high relief. And from the first, the dialogue captures Chekhov's tone of comic melancholy: "Who wants to watch plays about the way things were or the way things are?" Konstantin grumbles. "Three walls, some artificial light, and sit a few hundred people down to watch people like them pretend to be people like them." Nina, his leading lady and the object of his affection, isn't all that sympathetic. "Well, my character's not alive," she says. "It's very hard to act that."

Under the direction of Tucker, the play's web of relationships, the tangle of love, lust, boredom, and frustration that will eventually combust into actions that cannot be taken back, is skillfully brought to life. Despite the age issue, Sharma is an authoritative, deeply conflicted Arkadina, especially in the scene in which she plays at being a mother, trying to bandage Konstantin's head; as she tends to the son she has cheated out of any kind of a future, we see in her eyes anger and exasperation battling with genuine affection. Sharma makes abundantly clear that Arkadina sees the slightest emotional demand as a plot against her -- and yet, on some level, she understands her essentially grasping nature. Her performance alone makes a visit to The Seagull worthwhile. But she's not alone: Tucker is an exceptional Konstantin, comically high-strung in the early scenes, and, later on, weighed down by disappointments in love and literature. (In what may be the production's most startling gesture, he signals his suicidal despair by pouring water all over his laptop.) Laura Baranik captures Nina's coltish enthusiasm for life and her intense feeling for Trigorin; when she returns a broken woman, she is, intriguingly, both tougher, in her understanding of the world and her failed career, and more fragile, in her utter heartbreak. Jason O'Connell's Trigorin is unusually diffident, his shyness slyly deployed to seduce Nina. (He sees his flirtation with Nina as a refreshing break from daily life; like everyone else in the play, Trigorin sees himself as a victim, yet gives his tacit approval to Arkadina's manipulations.) As Masha, who fruitlessly loves Konstantin, Nichols is stoic to the point of masochism. Rejecting her mother's sympathetic overtures, she says, flatly, "All that 'unrequited' love nonsense is just romantic bullshit. You just need to get a grip." Each word is like a self-inflicted wound.

Tucker's staging puts the audience in the theatre's seating for the first half, then brings us down to the stage level after intermission, so we can see the play's more bruising confrontations close up. But the thing that distinguishes this production most is its awareness of the play's tensile substructure, the sense that under all the ennui and inaction, powerful feelings and impulses are at work. The company puts a snap in this Seagull's step and it's all the better for it.

All of which makes Bedlam's Sense and Sensibility even more disappointing. It's not the fault of Hamill, who has neatly distilled Jane Austen's novel, about the romantic misfortunes of the genteelly poor Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, into a lean, fast-moving comic drama. This time out, however, Tucker's direction suffers from a fatal tonal confusion. Nobody seems clear if they are offering Austen up straight or spoofing her as broadly as possibly, so they do both; thus, incisively staged and acted scenes sit side by side with bits of grotesque, class-play mugging.

There are many clever staging ideas. We get an overhead view of a married couple in bed, in reality two actors standing up with a sheet hanging in front of them and other actors holding pillows behind their heads and teacups at their sides. When Marianne sits down to play some music, the effect is created by the miming actress sitting behind a piece of fabric that stands in for the piano. A dinner scene is staged with tables and chairs on wheels, the constantly changing arrangements exposing the emotional crosscurrents at the meal. In certain crucial moments, the company spies on Elinor and Marianne, creating an atmosphere of lascivious gossip and revealing the threat of scandal that could destroy them.

But all too quickly, again under Tucker's direction, cutesy staging ideas overwhelm the text. When Sir John Middleton, the Dashwoods' country neighbor, appears, you can barely hear the dialogue for the yapping of his dogs. Tucker takes on the drag role of Mrs. Jennings, which he milks to an unseemly degree, tossing his curls and simpering endlessly. The meeting of Marianne with Willoughby, her false lover, at a London ball begins on an appropriately taut note, which is made additionally tense as the dancers circle around the trapped, unhappy young woman. But then their movements segue into a savage step dance that looks like something out of Zorba the Greek and the effect is spoiled. When an unsuitable engagement is exposed, the young lady falls to the floor and is quickly joined by the entire company, rolling about and moaning. (The one really rolling about may be Jane Austen, in her grave.) Even more oddly, given a story in which everyone struggles to retain a composed public face, you've never heard so much screaming; you'd think everyone in Regency England was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. When they stick to the business of performing the script, the cast is effective. Nichols is a fine Elinor, a vein of real passion percolating under her almost forbiddingly correct exterior, and O'Connell is spot-on both as Edward, her morally compromised lover, and Robert, Edward's dissipated brother. Nigel Gore is a model of restraint as Colonel Brandon, the middle-aged officer who loves Marianne from afar. Steinmetz strikes exactly the right tone of gravity as Elinor and Marianne's mother, although she adopts a bizarre set of mannerisms as a young lady of society who can't keep her mouth shut. But too much of the time you see the members of the company practically squeezing their own hands in congratulations over their own cleverness. This production occasionally features a bit of sense, but very, very little sensibility.

Both productions make use of the same scenic elements by John McDermott, including four leaded windows, a few saplings, and, on the walls, images of the countryside, which serve both plays well. Angela Huff's costumes include well-chosen contemporary casual wear for The Seagull and some acceptable period outfits for Sense and Sensibility. Les Dickert's lighting for The Seagull is more interesting, especially his use of blackout cues to make dramatic points. The sound design, by Tucker and Katie Young, includes some evocative thunderstorm and rain effects.

I suspect that, this time out, Bedlam isn't going to enjoy the double triumph it did with St. Joan and Hamlet, but there is talent at work here, and the ability to bring a real immediacy to well-worn classics. And really, .500 is not a bad batting average at all. I look forward to seeing what they do next.--David Barbour

(12 November 2014)

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